Rubio’s effort to reach out to Hispanic voters could backfire on Senate floor

Republicans hope Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) can help them reach out to Hispanic voters but any debate on immigration reform could end up alienating the bloc they are courting.

Groups that want to stem the flow of illegal immigration say a bill Rubio has crafted could become a vehicle for other proposals, such as legislation requiring employers to verify the immigration status of workers and revoking birthright citizenship.

Votes on these controversial proposals could hurt Republicans with Hispanic voters but may also rally the GOP base, which wants the federal government to do more to combat illegal immigration.

Rubio will soon unveil a plan to grant legal residency to illegal immigrants who came to the country as children if they meet certain requirements. It would serve as an alternative to the Democrats’ DREAM Act, which grants a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants who came to the U.S. at a young age.

“I suspect it will become a vehicle for all sorts of amendments,” said Ira Mehlman, spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, in reference to Rubio’s bill.

Rubio said he is waiting to get “final figures from the Congressional Budget Office” about how much the bill would cost and how many immigrants it would affect.   

He believes many Democrats would vote for his legislation, which will put pressure on Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) to schedule a vote.

Rep. Luis Gutierrez (Ill.), a leading Democratic proponent of immigration reform, predicted last month that as many as 95 percent of Democrats could support Rubio’s bill if it “stops the deportations and is sensible and reasonable,” according to Talking Points Memo, a digital news organization.

Rubio’s bill could give a small group of conservative colleagues a chance to force a vote on ending birthright citizenship.

Sen. David Vitter (R-La.) has sponsored the Birthright Citizenship Act, which would amend the Immigration and Nationality Act to consider a person born in the U.S. a citizen only if his or her parent is a U.S. citizen, a lawful permanent resident or an alien serving in the U.S. Armed Forces.

Republican Sens. John Boozman (Ark.), Mike Lee (Utah), Jerry Moran (Kan.) and Rand Paul (Ky.) have co-sponsored Vitter’s bill.

Vitter’s proposal would draw support from other Republicans if it reached the Senate floor.

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) has called birthright citizenship “a mistake.”

“It’s an inducement to break the law,” said Graham. “If you go to France and have a child they don’t become a French citizen.”

Birthright citizenship stems from the 14th Amendment, which states, “All persons born or naturalized in the United States and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and the State wherein they reside.”

“The 14th Amendment never envisioned a wave of people coming across the border into the country illegally. It was designed to deal with the problem of making sure the freed slaves could not be disenfranchised so I would argue the problem we have today in 2012 was never envisioned by the 14th Amendment,” Graham said.

“I just don’t want to keep in place systems that entice people to come here illegally,” he said.

Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) said birthright citizenship conferred by the 14th Amendment “has certainly been misused.”

“If we control our borders and we don’t have the illegal immigration than the birthright is not as much of a problem but we do know for years because we had that policy people have snuck in to have a baby here and they’ve got an American citizen who can create the chain migration,” said DeMint.

Groups wanting to crack down on the flow of illegal immigrants argue the amendment would not have to be repealed to end birthright citizenship. They say it merely has to be interpreted to define people as “subject to the jurisdiction” of the U.S. only if they are born to citizens or lawful residents.

If Vitter’s proposal became law it would be challenged in court. Supporters, however, think the Supreme Court would uphold it.

“No one knows what the 14th Amendment means unless the Supreme Court rules on it,” said Roy Beck, executive director of NumbersUSA, which advocates for lower immigration levels.

Rubio’s bill could also serve as a vehicle for e-verify legislation sponsored by Sen. Chuck Grassley (Iowa), the ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee.

It would require employers to check the residence status of employees within three years and increase penalties for employers who fail to verify the status of employees or hire illegal immigrants.

Beck said Rubio should agree to attach e-verify legislation to his bill in a gesture of compromise to lawmakers concerned about illegal immigration.

“Grassley could offer his e-verify bill as an amendment,” said Beck. “Our point has always been that a carefully crafted loophole-filled DREAM Act could be possible if it included a trigger of mandatory e-verify and an end to chain migration.”

Rubio told The Hill he is not concerned that his effort could spur a congressional debate that alienates Hispanic voters from the GOP.  

“I haven’t really thought about it that way. I think this is a legitimate issue, it’s one of many,” he said. “I also think it’s wrong to believe the only issue that Hispanics care about is immigration.

“To only think that the only thing Hispanics care about is immigration is not accurate and is quite frankly borderline disrespectful,” he added.

Rubio said debates about e-verify and birthright citizenship are separate issues and “we can have conversations about those issues.”